Writing and Revision Workshops

After grading and returning the first essay for each course I teach, I conduct a writing and revision workshop tailored to the needs of that class. While each class is different, I have seen recurring trends and needs over the course of my career as an instructor.

Before the workshops even begin, I believe a message is sent: a writing opportunity is not over simply because it has been submitted and graded. The act of bringing in a "completed" essay challenges students' assumptions about the writing process and emphasizes the importance of revision and reflection.

The embedded presentation below and the description that follows offer a glimpse of what happened during a workshop for one of my British Literature I courses. In a way, a glimpse is all that is possible because a PowerPoint presentation cannot accurately document the lively questions, conversations, and realizations that occurred.


We're in this Together

The first slide of my presentation is what I call a "lowlight reel" of some of the more negative feedback I have received over my educational journey. When I was completing my dissertation or working on article revisions, I also shared screenshots of particularly assertive comments from faculty and editors. I want students to see that constructive, and even less-than constructive, criticism is a necessary part of growing as a writer and critical thinker. Like them, I am working to improve.

After discussing the feedback I have received, I handout a piece of writing with marks all over it. The body of the text is tattooed with localized comments, symbols, arrows, and different highlighter colors. Track changes run along the side, carefully pointing out larger conceptual issues. When students have spent a few minutes reviewing the document, I reveal that I am the author of the text. Many students are aghast and mutter, "His instructor is really harsh." Others feel a bit better because the person who marked up their writing is also subject to a comparable amount of scrutiny. 

All of my students are shocked when I reveal that I am the one who wrote all of the comments on my writing. I want them to see that revision - that most mysterious part of the writing process - is messy and requires self-awareness and careful reflection. I did not make the marks to be mean or cruel to myself, but rather because I wanted to grow.

Your Ideas Matter

One of my refrains as a writing tutor is, "Where is the [insert student's name here] in this paper?" I want students to know that their ideas are the most important thing about any writing opportunity. Oftentimes, students assume that comments about surface errors are an indictment of their reading of a literary text or research-based argument. Or, to use writing-center terminology, students assume that discussing lower-order concerns means that higher-order concerns such as argument and conceptualization must be in a state of disarray.

In my workshops, I help students realize that grammar, mechanics, and style are important because they are the vehicles through which they can articulate their own original ideas. This fact is most significant when we discuss quotations and research. Signal phrases emerge not as a simple lower-order concern, a rule that must be followed, but as a way for students to make their own idea primary. The same is true for what I affectionately refer to as the "colons with context" way of introducing words that are not their own.

After all, instructors do not craft, assign, grade, and value literary analysis or research papers because they want to read Shakespeare's words or be kept abreast of current research; they want to see how their students can distill and mobilize information in order to express themselves clearly and persuasively.

Once students understand the rhetorical function of their data - whether it be a passage from a work of literature, a quote from an expert in a relevant field, or a hard statistic - they begin to see how important their own voices truly are.

From Summary to Analysis

One of the most difficult challenges for college writers, especially those in first-year composition courses and early in their writerly careers, is making the transition from answering "what" to answering "how" or "why." Students unfamiliar with literary analysis and research tend to summarize a text or article rather than analyze it. This tendency only makes sense: a high school quiz on Shakespeare's Hamlet might simply ask, "What happens at the end of Act II?" In contrast, a college-level writing prompt might ask a student analyze the function of a possibly unfamiliar literary characteristics.

Therefore, in my workshops, I model a three-part thesis formula: characteristic + active verb + function/effect = strong thesis. While this formula is far from revolutionary, it provides students with a quick way to begin thinking and, more importantly, re-thinking their thesis statements and topic sentences.

Students frequently have all three components of the formula in an introduction or body paragraph, but they might not necessarily be presented in a logical order in the same sentence with an external reader in mind. Some of the best moments of my professional career have been when students find all three parts, reorder them, and write new thesis statements and topic sentences. More often than not, no new material or information is required; students simply need to rearrange their sentences a bit.

Thinking Backwards

I first encountered the concept of reverse outlining during my training as a peer writing tutor at the University of California, Irvine. Throughout my educational journey, reverse outlines proved useful time and time again. Speaking broadly, reverse outlining is the process of examining a completed draft of a piece of writing in order to identify the main points. Writers can open a blank document or grab a fresh piece of paper and make an outline of these points in order to check for weaknesses in structure, argumentation, and other areas. In a successful reverse outline, writers examine whether or not their thesis statement, topic sentences, and argument flow logically.

In my writing and revision workshops, I model how I would reverse outline a sample five-page research paper from my freshmen English course. During my demonstration, students chime in on what they believe is the main idea of each paragraph, shout out when they see a great topic sentence buried at the end of a paragraph, and let me know that the conclusion actually reads like an interesting and engaging introduction. 

This demonstration is crucial because reverse outlining is difficult. Developing a successful reverse outline requires students to understand the features of the genre in which they are writing, take ownership of the relationship between successive ideas, identify - and hierarchize - their main points, reorder paragraphs/pages/sentences/clauses, and more



Randall Sessler